Even disobedience of trial courts in other states can get your California appeal dismissed

Last Thursday’s decision in Stoltenberg v. Ampton Investments Inc., case no. B235731 (2d. Dist. April 4, 2013) demonstrates the hazards of being unable to stay enforcement of a money judgment against you while your appeal is pending . . . and how much trouble you can get in for going too far in resisting those enforcement efforts. How much trouble? Well, is having your appeal dismissed enough trouble for ya?

Ampton had the misfortune of losing at trial and having a judgment of more than $8 million dollars entered against it. Ampton appealed, but did not post a bond to stay enforcement of the judgment. When the plaintiffs registered the California judgment in Ampton’s home state of New York and then subpoenaed financial records, Ampton ignored the subpoena. Plaintiffs asked the New York trial court to find Ampton in contempt. Ampton escaped contempt but was ordered to respond to the subpoena. When Ampton refused to do so, Plaintiffs again sought a contempt finding against Ampton, and that time they got it: Ampton was ordered to pay $500 in sanctions and to comply with the subpoena within 30 days or face further sanctions.

By now, you would think that Ampton might finally accept the reality that its own failure to stay enforcement of the judgment pending appeal carries consequences that it would have to live with, and comply with the contempt order. But . . . that’s not what Ampton did. When Ampton failed to comply with the New York contempt order, Plaintiffs moved to dismiss Ampton’s California appeal, arguing that Ampton’s disobedience of the New York trial court contempt order was sufficient to invoke the “disentitlement doctrine.” After much procedural wrangling (which makes for interesting reading but is unnecessary to cover here), Plaintiffs succeeded in getting Ampton’s appeal dismissed.

Let’s start with the court’s description of the disentitlement doctrine (citations omitted):

An appellate court has the inherent power, under the “disentitlement doctrine,” to dismiss an appeal by a party that refuses to comply with a lower court order. As the Supreme Court observed . . . “A party to an action cannot, with right or reason, ask the aid and assistance of a court in hearing his demands while he stands in an attitude of contempt to legal orders and processes of the courts of this state.

We recently explained the equitable rationale underlying the doctrine. “‘Dismissal is not “a penalty imposed as a punishment for criminal contempt. It is an exercise of a state court‟s inherent power to use its processes to induce compliance” with a presumptively valid order’ . . .  Appellate disentitlement “is not a jurisdictional doctrine, but a discretionary tool that may be applied when thebalance of the equitable concerns make it a proper sanction . . . .‟ No formal judgment of contempt is required; an appellate court“may dismiss an appeal where there has been willful disobedience or obstructive tactics.” The doctrine “is based upon fundamental equity and is not to be frustrated by technicalities.”

The Court of Appeal has no problem finding the doctrine applicable here. After rejecting a few contentions that were squarely against precedent (why the heck were those arguments made?), the court addresses the one issue that had even a chance of succeeding: that Ampton’s appeal could not be dismissed under the disentitlement doctrine because Ampton disobeyed orders only of a court of foreign jurisdiction rather than orders from a California trial court.

It’s a valiant effort, but the Court of Appeal finds no reason to treat disobedience of foreign court orders any differently from those of California trial court for purposes of the disentitlement doctrine. The court first cites the “full faith and credit” clause of the federal constitution, but also notes a very practical reason for applying the disentitlement doctrine in these circumstances (citations and footnote omitted):

Had plaintiffs attempted to enforce the judgment in California by propounding postjudgment special interrogatories seeking defendants’ financial information, including information about assets defendants may have in New York, the disentitlement doctrine would have applied to any noncompliance with the California trial court‟s orders compelling responses to those interrogatories.  For purposes of the disentitlement doctrine, there is no meaningful distinction between New York trial court orders and California trial court orders related to enforcement of a California judgment. The orders of the New York court in issue were based solely on a California money judgment and were intended to aid in the enforcement of that judgment. Thus, by violating those orders, defendants are obstructing and frustrating the enforcement of a judgment of this state, while at the same time seeking relief concerned that judgment in this court. Under the well-established

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